Sunday, October 03, 2010

Review - Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv)

Police, Adjective is not your average police movie. There isn't a gun fired, or even brandished, during the course of the film, the only chase involves an officer slowly walking behind his unsuspecting target, and the dramatic climax is a twenty-minute sequence involving three men reading aloud from a dictionary. Writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu is not the slightest bit interested in the glamour usually associated with cinematic depictions of law enforcement. He wants to show us the drab reality of the police officer's lot; the paperwork, the waiting, the cases that stall, the banal conversations with colleagues and, most pertinently, the frustration an officer must feel as he is forced to impose laws that contradict with his own beliefs.

The man at the centre of Police, Adjective's moral dilemma is Cristi (Dragos Bucur), an undercover detective working in the small town of Vaslui. He is tracking a teenager who has been seen smoking pot near his school, a case that hardly seems worth spending a great deal of time on, but if persecuted, this teenager could face several years in jail, a state of affairs that doesn't sit well with Cristi. He knows that in most major cities across Europe this offense would be seen as a minor misdemeanour, so why should he enforce a law that he believes to be wrong, and one that he predicts will be abolished within a few years? He tries to delay the inevitable by filing ambiguously worded reports, and he focuses on an angle that, he hopes, might lead him to the supplier of the drugs, a far more worthwhile target, but his superiors have little patience for Cristi's delaying tactics. They just want him to stage a sting operation and conclude the case; in their eyes, the fate of the young man is irrelevant in the face of the law.

Porumboiu sets up a simmering tension between Cristi and his superiors, but like everything else in the film, it is coolly underplayed. For much of the picture, we just observe as Cristi, shoulders hunched against the cold, reluctantly follows orders, standing on street corners to observe the suspect and slowly tracking him through the grim streets. Porumboiu, like so many of his Romanian contemporaries, likes to let scenes play out at length, and many sequences in Police, Adjective unfold in real time, with the director risking audience impatience by focusing on mundane incidents and details. His pacing is superbly judged, though, and it makes Police, Adjective an absorbing affair, driven by intelligent directorial choices, excellent performances and a wry sense of deadpan humour.

As the title suggests, Porumboiu has two particular things on his mind. One is the day-today aspect of police procedural work, and the other is language, its use and misuse, and the way a person can wield their greater command of it to control any given situation. A couple of lightly comical scenes between Cristi and his wife (Irina Saulescu) centre of grammatical errors and inexplicable metaphors, but the key scene in Police, Adjective comes right at the end, when Cristi is finally ordered to explain his behaviour to Captain Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov). In this superbly staged and brilliantly acted sequence, Anghelache slowly reiterates to Cristi that his role as a police officer is to follow orders, not make moral judgements, and as he makes Cristi read out the definition of words such as "conscience," "moral," "law" and "police." Gradually, Anghelache's stronger vocabulary and sense of reasoning ties the young detective up in contradictions and backs him into a linguistic corner, until he has no choice but to follow the letter of the law.